So, first of all, I’ve been teaching at the Courtauld Institute for very-very many years…and always people learn, for example, about Malevich. And last year we had a big Moscow festival called Moscow Breakthrough in London with all of contemporary art. There was also the Europalia Festival in Brussels and in the whole of Belgium, and I went to Brussels, I went to Antwerp, I went to Liege, I saw all the contemporary Russian art. And I am a friend of Joseph Backstein, I am a friend of his wife Katy Deepwell; and I know Victor Misiano. I would take my students to Warsaw to see the Central Asian pavilion from the Venice Biennale reinstalled in Warsaw just one or two months ago. And I have just come back from St. Petersburg. And I met, for example, the director of the Pro Arte Foundation. And I went to the old St. Petersburg Academy and saw the Socialist Realist painting. And I met contemporary artists in Pushkinskaya Street, Number 10. And we were also taken around St. Petersburg by young students, basically students of Ilia Dorontchenkov, who is teaching at the moment in Brown University, in America, although he is teaching a course only up to 1939. And those were students who were studying Art History with him.
So I understand, what I’ve just read of your questionnaire, I’d like at the outset to distinguish between practices in art schools or academies that are producing artists and other practices, for example, the practice of Art History as a discipline and, for example, what Elena does at the Pro Arte in St. Petersburg, which is to have a school for contemporary art journalists. Because there is a difference between Art History and Art Journalism and creating contemporary artists. But basically it seems to me that in England and on the kind of Anglo-American circuit, which is different from the continental circuit, what we call continentalish, (that means the European circuit), although there are many overlaps, like all these English artists in Berlin and so forth, there is basically a discourse in circulation now, in which for the past 20 years, or 15 years, or 10 years, people have been reading a lot of theory of the French theoreticians, like Fuko and Bodrijar and Derrida. And there has also been a very-very strong art historical school, both from America, in which people like Rosalind Krauss, very-very strong university professors, are not teaching artists, they are teaching Art History. Yve-Alain Bois emigrated from France in the 1970-s to take up positions in Harvard, in Princeton, teaching Art History. Buchloh and Hal Foster – they all teach Art History. And it has become very clear to me because I teach in an institution which is quite a famous institution of Art History. And, for example, I’ve been commissioned by the French government to do a report on the state of Art History in universities in Paris, that the Art History foundation, when it is strong, it feeds into contemporary art, into contemporary art journalism, in contemporary art practice. And, although it is coming from the university, when it’s strong it is producing this kind of discourse which then artists, fine artists pick up on. And, for example, I’m very well aware of what is happening in St. Petersburg, because the Courtauld Institute of Art is linked with the Hermitage and we have a branch of the Hermitage in the Somerset House Complex, we have exhibitions. I was concerned that our gallery curators were going to St. Petersburg, but the academic staff, staff like me, we were not going to St. Petersburg. So I went to St. Petersburg as part of my new postmodern, post-communist MA (Master of Arts). And, for example, in St. Petersburg at the Hermitage you have Thomas Krenz from the Guggenheim who is coming in, obviously with many promises of money, which I don’t know anything about, wanting to have his paw, as we would say, in the creation of the new 19th and 20th century art museum in St. Petersburg. Now, in the Hermitage magazine, relatively innocently, he has listed the list of the 20 greatest artists of the 20th century, with the idea, of course, that the museum in St. Petersburg – you know, this 19th and 20th century part of the Hermitage, he wants it to be really strong – it’s got to buy Jasper Jones and Andy Warhol and everything, and it is incredibly American view. At the same time there is a curator called Sonia Kudryashaya in the education department who has an excellent exhibition project which is called “Born in Russia”. At the moment this is an exhibition project conceived by a curator without a deep art historical catalogue. We are going to have a conference on it soon at the Courtauld. And her list’s very deliberate, it does not have the most obvious people, for most obvious people are Kandinsky, for example, and Shagal, but on her list for her exhibition are Soutine, Ben Shahn working in America in the 1930-s, Naum Gabo who is in Russia and then France and then England and then America, Louise Nevelson, which is very interesting. I did not even know that Louise Nevelson, the American sculptor, was Russian.
- Oh, really?
- Yes. And Jules Olitski. And Jules Olitski is a very famous American artist. I didn’t know he was born in Russia. Obviously, Mark Rothko is born in Russia. And on her list there is Serge Polyakov. And, because there has already been a Nicolas De Stael retrospective at the Hermitage, she has chosen Polyakov and not Nicolas De Stael. But it seems to me that if you simply plug in, whether we are not talking about the availability of books to students, if you plug in into this kind of reading list, the identity politics that come up in the kind of reading, to your suggesting, are to do with American and European problems, to do with post-colonialism, which was a big problem for England and France, and to a less extent to, say, Belgium and Germany. But the whole colonial heritage, which therefore means now what is happening in Africa and India and so forth, and identity politics to do with a sexual identity which is very, you know, fashionable in England and America and not so fashionable in Russia. And you are missing out this very important question of Russian identity – not to mention Russian and Eastern European satellite states’ identity. I am quite close to some art historians working in Poland, like Pavel Leskovich, and young art historians in Poland who are buying all right books in English or having to use post-colonial models, elaborated in England or America, to talk about Africa or India, or in America’s case, Palestine, people like Edward Said. They are using these things which are to do with the relationship between the ‘First World’ and the ‘Third World’, always using inverted commas, as we do, to talk about problems in what is, in fact, the ‘Second World’, which is basically Russia, Eastern Europe, China and so forth. And I think about this very-very strongly and when I went to – I was in Moscow in May and then in St. Petersburg just now – I am very struck by the fact that there is this incredible appetite and enthusiasm for contemporary art and people are making contemporary art. But they don’t seem to have produced enough interesting and translated literature coming from Russia or Eastern Europe, written by this young generation about the problems of identity. In all the stuff about this theory and there is a lot of this stuff but… For example, to go back to my two examples I just gave, instead of the 19th and 20th century collections of the Hermitage being a shopping list where you have third-rate Andy Warhols and third-rate Jasper Jones because they are so expensive. If you actually worked on the notion of the Russian diaspora or if you were in Moscow, or at the new art history courses in Moscow, even a new course for contemporary artists, actually looked at these problems of diaspora, integration, globalization, what it means for Kabakov to be in America, what it means for Bulychov to have this retrospective now, when he only exhibited in Moscow for half an hour. It’s an amazing heritage and at the moment it seems to me the kind of incredible take-off in the contemporary art. It is being so quick that there has not been a time for reflection to say that we have a police in this theoretical discourse. We have fantastic theoreticians; we have Roman Jakobson, for God’s sake! You know, as far as I understand Roman Jakobson’s linguistics with their origins in kind of Russian dada go to Bulgaria and are picked up by Julia Kristeva and come to Paris and turn into structuralism and are fed back; but the heritage of the 20th century art and thought and manifestoes and everything that makes up an artist and even the whole business which is, what really interests me, of bad taste, often under dictatorship, socialist realism, the love of painting, the tradition of the Academy, which is very interesting in contemporary artists – this is something where I would like to think that Russian intellectuals were busily writing something which, as we would say, inscribed themselves into the story; and it seems to me, when you said everyone is eager to join in, there is this kind of… it’s like making money quickly or buying the right designer dresses or something… There has not been this desire to actually write yourself into the story. And, for example, when I was in Moscow, I saw the works of Africa [Sergei Bugaev] who obviously, I know, has exhibited substantially in central Europe, not in London, and he is very-very famous in central Europe. I did not know that he was one of the artists of this French story, this school of pounte-suiton in Cole, which I know very well. The institute des attitudes d’art plastique. There was this moment in the 1990-s which was a kind of …there’s a lot. The whole story is not known, I mean, I have to pick it up in little bits, and, I see, these big exhibitions being made and this first responsorship, and this first to sell the Biennalian things. And then I can see that the universities are underfunded. The urgency for the Pro Arte institute to do a journalist course is very different from addressing the problem of 20th century Art History in the universities. And so I think that we, if I can talk on behalf of ‘we’, like me and my colleagues, including Harris Minyon’s book about Louise Bourgeois… And my friend in the Hermitage just gave me this incredible book about Louise Bourgeois’s trip to Moscow, which I knew nothing about. Now, so much of your story people don’t know, so if you just show contemporary art, people think it’s sexy, or Russian millionaires want to buy it, that’s one thing. But it’s like looking at Picasso’s scribbles in 1960, without knowing who Picasso was. I think there is a very urgent need, which is part of this project of “Art and Education”, to tell your own story and to talk about Russia, and to talk about the Russian diaspora, and to talk about multiculturalism, and talk about Russians in Paris, Russians in New-York, Russians in Berlin. I mean, obviously there have been these big shows, like Berlin-Moscow and things, but they have happened so quickly, that the teaching level has not happened. And I wonder myself, I have been trying to use, but my German is not good enough to read complicated catalogues with pleasure – it requires dictionaries. My tourist German is perfectly OK. I’ve been trying to use the Moscow-Berlin catalogue. Now, I wonder if in Art History institutions in Moscow and St. Petersburg – let alone the rest of the country – are people using these new catalogues. These catalogues are very expensive and they are very complicated. And I think, the Academy is always scared of what is new, the University is always scared, they think it’s too soon, it’s too new. You need twenty or thirty years before it becomes the university subject. That is still the opinion, for example, a lot in France, what they call, art contemporain, contemporary art. They can think it is fauvism, or cubism. They call it art contemporain.
It's not just a question of story, it’s a question of the fact that a narrative needs to be told. This is why, I think, this «Born in Russia» exhibition is very important. And this is why, I think if you just say “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is the bibliography, we’ve got to read all these books”, you will read them much more in the state of alienation, especially young people. They think: what is it going to do with me? Whereas if they are able to think, I mean one of my favourite people I published about is Nadia Leger, Nadia Khodasevich-Leger, who was from a very poor family. And she went to be a student in Smolensk. And then she ran away with a Pole, and she was in Wutsch, and then she ran away to Paris and was with Leger. And then she came back and sold Picasso’s ceramics to the Hermitage. It’s an amazing 20th century story. You know, you’ve got a lot of fantastic women artists.
And my friend Kathy Deepwell, who is Joseph Backstein’s wife, has selected a lot of feminist texts to publish for the first time in Russia. I know that obviously in theory women are equal to men in Russia.
So, especially as you have this image of the great patriarch everywhere…
You know, there is a lot of what we call consciousness raising to-do. But I really believe that the young Russian artists I’ve met – and I’ve met all the people in these exhibitions… I didn’t meet all the artists, but I know all the people in the Moscow Breakthrough, for example. They are very intelligent, they know what to do, they have enough money to do big photographs. If the market wants very big photographs, they can do big photographs, they can do big installations. But my concern is that the infrastructure is the problem that must be worked on, and not just in art schools. It has to be worked on in universities and in journalism schools. And there has to be a lot of talking and sharing, and I think that people are very-very happy to share, especially with the Internet. I mean as I was saying to these people, quite frankly, publishing and art publishing in this country is very-very expensive. Sometimes I’ve sent some of my texts I’ve written in the past that I think sometimes are quite good. Sometimes they are to do with an exhibition and not particularly to be… Sometimes I’ve sent things I think are good to Poland, one or two being translated. I am perfectly happy to send everything I’ve ever written to Russia. I couldn’t care less if people would… I mean I don’t feel protective about it. Because there are many things which can’t be republished here because they’ve already been published once. And I think many-many people… Bearing in mind the difficulty of acquiring things and the financial circumstances… because it was interesting for me to see the difference. I had a very artificial view of what is going on in Moscow. But I understand that St. Petersburg obviously even thinks of itself as more provincial and poorer – physically, with less money. It seems to me that it’s inconceivable that students in St. Petersburg can buy books in English that cost 20 pounds in England. I think that there is a lot of potential as long as this kind of communication takes place, which is like we are having. There could be a massive net archive of art historical texts that people could be asked to send previously published texts or images on. And people would do it for free.
For some years now there’s been something which is very-very ‘draconian’, not to say ‘Stalinian’, called the RAE, which is Research Assessment Exercise. Which means that every university has to have absolutely perfect documentation about every course which is taught, with the complete bibliography and so forth. So that for many-many issues there are complete course descriptions and bibliographies, which have been inspected in England, which could quite easily fly electronically to Russia if it were of any interest to any of you.
And, of course, there is a certain competition between fine art places and art historical places. For example, within the University of London there is Goldsmith’s which was the art college, which produced many famous artists, which has its own art history faculty. And places which specialize in pure art history. For example, at the Courtauld, where I teach, for me the production of a text and its original date, and its original language, and how it was originally received are very-very important. Now, of course what happens, especially in art institutions, is that artists just want information and ideas – not to steal but to use. And the attitude of the artist as a user is very different from the art historian, who is trying to reconstitute how something was originally intended, because many artists could not care less about how something was originally intended. So there is a difference of approach in different institutions, to do with whether they are training artists or whether they are training art historians or whatever.
Everyone is expected to be highly competent. And there is this text which I have written about post-structuralism which quotes – I think it is Alison Ginger’s – a lot of art now is what one could say “theory generated”. One could ask if mid-period Cindy Sherman’s photographs are not responding to the currency in America that Julia Kristeva’s text on abjection had, and the exhibition at the Whitney museum called Abject Art, which was all to do with body fluids, and people being sick, and bleeding, and shitting and all sorts of these things. Suddenly Cindy Sherman starts doing photographs of raped women and with a lot of horrible stuff. And that’s just the famous example that springs to my mind, but in many ways there is a loop between what people have read and what people know. And the photography theory, for example, of Roland Barthes, or the cinema theory of Gilles Deleuze, and what they produce. They are producing innocently, and then critics come along, who’ve read the right text, and write about them. There was actually a critical loop.
My main interests in the past was the immediate post 1945 period and the philosophy of Sartre, and how his existentialist philosophy could be interpreted through the art of the period like Giacometti. And of course the authenticity of the individual is very much at stake nowadays, especially as painting has been so displaced by photography.
Of course I mean this is all about education but basically there is a big thing which is to do with a technique, not education, because, for example, in many art schools in England painting and drawing are hardly taught. People are taught photography, video and Marcel Duchamp. And the very great teacher Michael Craig-Martin who is also an artist, when he was at Goldsmith’s, he was responsible for saying: “Look, you don’t need this, you don’t need that, you don’t need this. Just look at Marcel Duchamp and make art”. And he was the big teacher of the YBA, the Young British Artists generation, like Damien Hirst, you know… So there is a big problem about the place of the individual. The big problem is identity and I think that contemporary Russians working in contemporary art… For example, in the Moscow breakthrough exhibition there was a big difference between people doing kind of Russian pop, on the one hand, with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and The Blue Noses, who were doing funny videos that relates to bad television programs. And then the one I particularly personally liked ‘cause I’ve a bit of romantic. There’s one who did these things to do with the moon, that was kind of Chaikovsky’s, from romantic… Which I personally could relate more to my fantasies of what will be Russian means. And then there were the people, the group, called something like IES+F. That’s a group with initials who did these very-very slick photos of young people in kind of lunar landscapes with machine guns. This was supposed to be Chechnya, but was very-very slick and much playing on the taste for showing young adolescents, you know… And so there were three different kinds of things. One was like “Yes, it’s slick photography and we can play up the adolescent thing with a little bit of Chechnya chic”. And one thing was pop artist grate, which is a bit of old-fashioned idea. And the other thing was something that should go slightly more: “Yes, I can’t help it. I do know about Dostoevsky and Chaikovsky”. And for me that was most interesting. And so I think that if you don’t tell your own story, it would be like a transistor radio made in China. And looking towards very interesting theories that we know not so well… Because, for example, Jacobson was incredibly important, but he is not really known very well in England, partly because he emigrated to France. There is a way in which your own heritage is fantastically rich. Yesterday I was looking at Mayakovsky’s poems translated into French, preface by Elsa Triolet. And I was in Paris yesterday... There is so much richness you could work on that you’ve got to think of the diachronic and not just the synchronic ‘cause it seems to me that everything is crazily spinning on a horizontal level at the moment. And there needs to be this synthetic relationship to the past and not just the avant-garde past. I’m particularly interested in socialist realism and we were allowed into the Academy in St Petersburg, and we saw these amazing works that are normally locked up. And there was one fantastic work of 1946 called Return from the Baltic after the Siege of Leningrad with this superb, obviously very authentic and heartfelt realist painting, not kitsch and not kind of bad socialist realism, but really fantastic stuff. And these names are not known. I bought some funny books about socialist realism, but they are very peculiar books published in the 1960-s... that are not sophisticated. The art history has a big job to do about the 1940-s, about the 1960-s, about the 1970-s, which is this amazing moment when Rauschenberg is playing around that artist in Moscow, which I don’t know enough about, which I want to know more about… which people in America don’t know anything about. You know, I’m having worked and having published a small book to do with Lyotard’s writing on art. I’m very interested in the relationship between petit recit, the small stories, and the big stories. And people are ignorant, outside Russia, of Russia’s small stories. They know some of the big stories, but there is so much work to be done, that is exciting. If you think of France, people know about… If you think of America, if you think of the Jewish museum in New York, which is a very important museum, where some contemporary Russian artists could have amazing shows… People know about Ben Shahn. Ben Shahn isn’t superimportant and he’s not as important as Rothko. It’s like the French word epaisseur, thickness, it’s like something where if it’s only surface, it’s difficult to understand without more stories. Because I have worked on French artists of the 60-s and 70-s for many years and I’ve worked on post 1945, and people are very ignorant about this. And it suddenly occurred to me, very-very long time after beginning of everything, if you take Picasso or Matisse, even if you don’t know much, if you are vaguely interested in art, you know about Francoise Gilot, and Marie-Therese, and all Picasso’s girlfriends. You can tell some little stories. You can’t know about Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, you know about Guernica. Even if that’s it. They are stories people can tell so they feel at home, within a kind of framework. It’s not just the visual aspect of the work, Giacometti-2, or whatever. And when there is absolutely no narrative that people can have as a story in their head – like they have fairy-tales or the story of, you know, Gorbachev – even if it’s a very imperfect story. If you ask an individual Russian man to write down what he knows about Gorbachev, you’ll have a very silly patchwork. But people will be able to tell a story. With a contemporary situation in Russia it’s very fast and there is a huge gap where some stories need to be told for people to understand what’s going on. That’s what I think. Maybe my opinion is very different from other people you’ve interviewed. But to feel one has some grasp of a situation is like… even… you can make an analogy with a football club, you know, even Abramovich and Chelsea. He’s not just taking on the best players today who might beat the other players. He’s taking on a mythology of Chelsea football club. So there seems to me to be a need to work on sort of stories, and mythology, and the transmission of the past into the present. And who the hell people are? Who are these people?